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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

As Washington’s homeless problem grows, senator and advocates debate solutions

From the rotunda in the center of the Washington state Capitol building in Olympia you can look up into the massive dome with its ornate decorations and decorative chandelier. The building houses the governor's office and the Legislature's two chambers. Photographed Thursday, Jan. 5, 2017. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – An effort to get homeless people off the streets and into shelters seems headed for revisions after critics said it would criminalize homelessness in Washington and put extra burdens on police.

Sen. Mark Miloscia, R-Federal Way, called homelessness “a statewide emergency.” He’s introduced a bill with several key changes to the state laws, including new restrictions on encampments and declaring homeless heroin users who refuse treatment “gravely disabled.” Parents who fail to report a runaway youth in 48 hours could also be charged with a misdemeanor.

“Things are getting worse, no matter what we’ve done,” he said, adding the state has spent about $1 billion on the problem.

A hearing on Senate Bill 5656 by the Senate Human Services, Mental Health and Housing Committee turned into a debate between Miloscia and representatives of cities, counties, service agencies and civil rights groups who agreed with his premise that something had to be done. A representative of the city of Seattle said the latest count showed about 3,000 homeless people on the streets in that city.

They disagreed with his solutions.

Although the current bill says the homeless could be cited with a misdemeanor only if space in a shelter was available and they refused to go, critics said that meant police would have to know on a day-to-day basis whether beds were available, where they were and if the person could get there.

It also means more prosecutors and public defenders to handle those cases, more time in already crowded district and municipal courts to hear them, and more time in jail for defendants who don’t have money to pay fines, said Juliana Roe, of the Washington Association of Counties. But there’s no extra money to pay for that.

“At the local level, we should decide what the strategy should be,” Roe said.

Miloscia said the police would conduct sweeps of homeless encampments to get people into needed services, and defended a section that would designate homeless heroin addicts who refused treatment gravely disabled.

“What do you do with a mentally ill homeless person, who’s high … who refuses treatment, who refused to go anywhere and trespasses?” he asked opponents. Homeless children under 18, in particular, should either be sent back to a parent or family member, or if that’s not safe, to Child Protective Services.

But Ann LoGerfo of Columbia Legal Services said the homeless people were simply trying to survive and the state doesn’t need to turn that into a crime. “What’s missing is housing,” she said.

Others said social service agencies need more people who work the streets, develop relationships with people who are suspicious of government or afraid for their safety.

“When we offer services that truly meet needs and are accessible, people respond,” said Alison Eisinger, executive director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness.

Miloscia said he’d work with critics to improve the bill, but the committee must decide in the next eight days whether to send it to the full Senate.